Twickenham trilogy threatens Six Nations

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The Independent Online

In all the justified excitement about England's Grand Slam against the southern hemisphere, we tend to forget the performances put up by the other nations of these islands, which is understandable enough. Ireland beat Australia, Scotland beat South Africa and Wales were by no means disgraced in losing to New Zealand, despite the unflattering scoreline.

In all the justified excitement about England's Grand Slam against the southern hemisphere, we tend to forget the performances put up by the other nations of these islands, which is understandable enough. Ireland beat Australia, Scotland beat South Africa and Wales were by no means disgraced in losing to New Zealand, despite the unflattering scoreline.

None of them had the opportunity to emulate England because none had the equivalent fixture list. This is guesswork – or, rather, form combined with guesswork – but Ireland would have stood the best chance of achieving a clean sweep. They would, however, have been laid low by New Zealand.

The Twickenham trilogy aroused so much interest, and provided the three best consecutive matches I have ever seen, that it can only be a matter of time before the competition is not only regularised but expanded to include the Celtic nations, as they are now called, and France as well.

And what will happen to the Six Nations' Championship then? You may reply that the competition is still one of the best in the world; perhaps the best of all, despite the evident attractions of the Tri-Nations and the Super 12. But I can remember, as a boy, tuning in to the England and Scotland football match at Wembley or Hampden Park. It was one of the great fixtures of the sporting calendar, to be ranked with the Derby, the Grand National, the Boat Race, the Lord's Test – and, of course, England and Wales at Twickenham or Cardiff Arms Park.

The England and Scotland football match is now forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of sporting history. Why should the same fate not await the England and Wales rugby match? Already it is not what it was, not least because these days the result is a predictable win for England.

Certainly the singing is not what it was. The fans do not know the hymns. They do not have the vaguest idea of them, for they are no longer part of the culture. When, in the recent Wales v New Zealand game, some singing broke out, I said to myself, watching the video: "That singing is remarkably good, considering.'' I suspected, however, that there was something not quite right about it. So it turned out. The songs, chiefly from the 1970s, were recordings that were being blasted out across the stands.

The organisers would have done better to devote their energies to the pitch instead. It was, quite simply, a disgrace. The old Arms Park was bad enough, acting as it did as an overspill area for the River Taff. The National Stadium, which was roughly in the same position, nevertheless produced some excellent playing surfaces.

The Millennium Stadium is some distance from and at right angles to the National Stadium's old pitch. So why, in only the third month of the season, and with the inestimable advantage of a retractable roof, did the pitch look as if it had just been used in a television reconstruction of the Battle of the Somme? There has been no official explanation that I have seen. All I have read is that the turf is to be relaid in January.

It is easier to produce a good pitch than a good team. Steve Hansen, the Wales coach, has done better than most people expected, even if he does sound like a character from ITMA, the radio show of the 1940s. She was called Mona Lott, and her catchphrase was: "It's being so cheerful as keeps me going.'' Still, a coach who expects little may be better than one who expects too much.

We have heard less lately of his policy of picking three wings – or, what amounts to the same thing, three full-backs – largely, I suspect, because that is the way all modern teams organise their affairs anyway. The days have long gone when the full-back was simply a solid citizen who could tackle, catch the ball and find touch with either foot. Today he may be a converted wing, such as Jason Robinson or Iain Balshaw. He is often the fastest player in the side.

Likewise, wings are expected to do more than hang about staring into space, waiting for the pass which, like Billy Bunter's postal order, never comes, and filling time by throwing the ball into the lineout by means of a two-handed underarm scoop (a system which the French persisted with for longer than any other country without disgracing themselves).

Hansen has some very fast backs, so most of them are on the small side by modern standards. What he has yet to resolve is the Stephen Jones-Iestyn Harris question. He seems to have settled on Jones as first-choice outside half with Harris on the bench. This is, I think, a pity. When Harris came on in the second half against New Zealand he unsettled the visiting side's defence through his ability to throw accurate, long passes.

But Jones is, by a slight margin, the more reliable place kicker. Graham Henry, Hansen's predecessor, thought he was best suited to inside centre. Certainly the Welsh side are not so full of footballing talent that they can afford to leave out either of them.

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